CHICAGO -- As they whooped it up in the showers, smiled for the cameras and happily toted their Gucci bags out the doors to revel with family and friends, few in the Chicago Bears' locker room would readily admit the stone-cold obvious truth: They downright stole a victory from a one-win team.
"It was a hard-fought win," Bears receiver Earl Bennett said after their wild 23-22 comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers. "I don't feel like we stole it. We went out and made plays when we needed to and won the game."
All true, Earl. I wouldn't protest either. But that was Grand Theft NFL and we all know it. And guess what: There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, it's pretty great.
There's no BCS computer ranking in the NFL, in which bad teams beat good teams every week. Las Vegas sportsbooks keep their lights on for a reason.
And this bad team (Carolina) has a freak of nature at quarterback and a spectacularly tough veteran at wide receiver. And this good team (Bears) has the RollerCutler at quarterback and pass-blocking that resembles an easy pass lane. So maybe it wasn't that much of a lopsided matchup. The Panthers looked good here in a loss last year too. So yeah, you can still say the Bears haven't defeated a great team yet, but those chances will come in two weeks against Houston and then at San Francisco.
On this Sunday, nothing mattered but the end result of this one game. The Bears won their fifth straight game, improving to 6-1 on Robbie Gould's 41-yard field goal as time expired. After his kick went through, the Bears sideline poured onto the field. No sighs of relief, only exultations of joy.
Gould, who missed a 33-yard field early in the fourth quarter, was celebrating like he was Derrick Rose nailing a 3-pointer.
"It's never subdued when you win," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who certainly knows how to act subdued. "It's so hard winning in this league, and of course, the way we did. But every game's important and that's what you saw from their reaction."
"It was stressful," Brian Urlacher said. "The most stressful game we've been in besides the [Green Bay] loss."
When the Bears went into the half with minus-15 yards passing (thanks to six sacks for a loss of 55 yards) and nearly half the time of possession of the Panthers, you thought the middling offense had better correct that quickly. But when Carolina went up 19-7 in the third quarter, and the Bears went for a field goal early in the fourth, and missed that too, well, you felt like this wasn't their game. Jay Cutler later called it a "boo-worthy performance, if you will."
But then, perhaps, fate intervened. And as it so often happens, the miracles came in threes. In this case it was a 6-yard punt, a third-down conversion and a Kellen Davis touchdown catch.
After a flubbed punt gave the Bears good field position with 10:18 left in the game, Cutler went to work. The Bears were 0-6 on third down until Cutler found Brandon Marshall on third-and-8 for an 11-yard gain. Four plays later, Cutler rifled a pass high to Davis in the end zone to cut the Bears' deficit to 19-14.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, playing a renaissance game, was looking for Steve Smith on a quick pass, but Smith slipped on the turf and cornerback Tim Jennings stepped up, caught the pass, his second pick of the game, and took it in for a 25-yard return.
Jennings' interception return for a touchdown gave the Bears a 20-19 lead with less than seven minutes to go. It was Jennings' sixth pick of the year and the defense's sixth interception returned for a touchdown this season. It was Jennings' first score.
"That's our mentality," Jennings said. "Every time we're out there we feel like we've got to get some takeaways, we've got to turn the ball over. Any time we get our hands on the ball, we want to score."
Jennings had a difficult assignment shadowing star receiver Steve Smith, who had seven catches for 118 yards. But his performance epitomized the Bears' effort.
"You're going to win some, you're going to lose some, but in the end, you got to keep playing," cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman said. "You saw what 2-6 did. He kept playing. He played through adversity. Big-time players make big-time plays and he came through when he needed to. He's my hero."
Of course, it didn't end easy. Cutler threw a pick-six interception on the 2-point conversion try, even though you can't return that for a score in the NFL. Cutler still chased Josh Norman, who didn't know the rule either, down the field, getting blocked hard in the process. Luckily, he didn't get crushed in the process.
Carolina would go on to an 11-play, 53-yard drive to retake the lead on a 45-yard field goal, giving the Bears 2 1/2 minutes to win the game. Cutler Time? Yeah, actually it was.
Cutler was pretty bad for most of the game, even by his roller-coaster standards, until that final drive when he ran the two-minute drill like he actually was John Elway's successor, going 6-for-7 for 52 yards to set up the winning kick. Cutler's ease in the no-huddle gives one a little confidence down the road when the Bears will have to play from behind in a playoff game. Cutler was accurate, smart and tough.
"We work on that every week," Bears running back Matt Forte said. "He's good at that anyway, making checks at the line of scrimmage. So it comes naturally to him."
He showed why he's the top-rated fourth-quarter passer. Now about those other three quarters. ...
"We had a lot of time," Cutler said. "They were playing one coverage and we just kept hitting them and hitting them and hitting them. That's pretty much it."
It wasn't all Cutler when it wrong either. Receivers were dropping passes, the line was missing blocks, and the play-calling was erratic. That the Bears shrugged it off for that final drive says a lot about their character and the potential to do great things. But the offense's lack of synergy continues to be a story. Why didn't Forte get more looks early? Why did the Bears go away from their two tight end sets when Cutler was getting hammered?
If this team makes the playoffs, it will need to answer these questions and still find a way to win close games against better defenses. And the Bears' defense will have to continue to rely on big turnovers.
"Right now our defense has been playing great and they've really been keeping us in ballgames and dominating," Marshall said. "We've just been average or good. We want to be better than good. We want to be great. To do that, we just have to continue to work."
You know what they say about luck. It's when opportunity meets preparation. The Bears practice the two-minute drill. They practice causing turnovers. So maybe this wasn't just an ugly steal of a win. Maybe it was an affirmation of how the Bears prepare under coach Lovie Smith. If the Panthers were 3-3 coming in, we'd be calling this a great victory.
But in the end, the Bears probably celebrated this win more than any other this season.
"I think you learn a lot from a game like this," Tillman said. "We were down the whole game, we just kept playing. Just playing and keep pushing through. It was an ugly win, but it was a win."